‘Indie’ Hyperlocal ARLNow Replicates With New Outlets in Suburban D.C.

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Scott Brodbeck was a writer-producer at two TV stations in Washington, D.C., when, three years ago, he got the bug to go entrepreneurial. He started a hyperlocal news website on turf he knew well from his broadcast experience — Arlington County across the river in Northern Virginia.

Once a mostly white bedroom community for federal workers in the capital, today Arlington is a highly diverse city within a city where 40% of the 207,000 population is Hispanic, black or another minority – all fodder for a newsy website like Brodbeck’s ARLNow. Now Brodbeck is expanding to the affluent, mostly white suburb of Bethesda and adjacent and demographically similar communities in Maryland’s Montgomery County. We asked Brodbeck how and why he was expanding his “indie” site’s footprint.

You’ve expanded from an inner suburb in Northern Virginia to inner suburbs in Maryland across the Potomac River. That’s only about 10 miles cross-river, but you must be clocking a lot of time on the super-congested Beltway to get to your new geography. Or do you do everything digitally?
We have a reporter/editor who’s taking the lead on the journalism side of BethesdaNow.com. Plus we’ll be adding a couple of freelance contributors soon. But the common thread is that all will be residents — long-time residents, mostly — of the area. We’re keeping things authentically local by hiring locals and giving them a lot of latitude to cover the area as they see fit.

I’ve been making some trips to Bethesda but most of the day-to-day managing will be via digital communication.

Arlington is highly diverse. Your new coverage area in suburban Maryland is predominantly white and affluent. Will these demographics bring any shift in how you cover the news?
No. On a local level, news is news no matter the color of your skin or how much you make.

You’re an independent site, which, some observers say, is almost impossible to replicate because it’s so often the unique creation of its publisher. Have you, just maybe, developed an indie model that can be replicated?
It’s definitely hard to replicate a successful independent local news site in another community. But I believe that it’s possible to do so when it’s done on a smaller-scale, regional level, and when you’re careful to adjust your strategy for the numerous factors that make each community unique.

One thing we want to avoid is the trap of not putting enough resources and energy into the new site. If you’re going to launch a new site, you should give it at least the same resources and management attention as the first site. You don’t want the new  site to become the online news equivalent of the proverbial red-headed stepchild. That’s why we’re currently spending a lot more money on BethesdaNow.com than we are on ARLNow, even though the latter is generating 100% of our revenues.

As far as what makes a site replicable, I would hypothesize that it’s 10% platform and 90% execution. Anybody can clone their website and hire someone to run the clone. Not everybody can get the hiring, training, equipping, editing, story selection, timing, work flow, marketing, and user engagement right. Oh, and then you have to sell ads. There are quite a few balls to juggle in order to find success.

Did you get outside financing to expand, or are you doing it with your own resources, including credit?
The on-going operating costs for ARLnow.com and BethesdaNow.com (including personnel costs) are being funded through the advertising revenues generated by ARLnow.com.

What’s the tipping point for success when you’re an independent who isn’t backed up by investors? Is it a hitting a target with actual advertisers under contract, or is it a combination of factors that include, besides revenue, editorial content and user traffic and engagement?
I’d declare the site a success when our unique visitor count is at least half the population of the community we’re serving, and when revenues match or exceed expenses.

Businesses aren’t lining up to place ads on local news sites. How have you surmounted that challenge?
Businesses want their message to reach potential customers, period. If local news sites aren’t providing that audience, or aren’t providing the right means to reach them at the right price, then that’s a failure of the site’s management, not of local news sites as a collective.

Hyperlocal is audience segmentation, pure and simple. If you’re Ford and you want to reach “people who like fast cars” to sell more Mustangs, you place a :30 spot during a NASCAR race. If you’re an Arlington-based home contractor and you want to reach “people who live in Arlington” to sell more kitchen remodeling jobs, then ARLnow.com offers the best combination of reach and value.

Local businesses will go where the local eyeballs are. Traditionally this has been community newspapers or the Yellow Pages or other local print products.  But if a local news site can offer more eyeballs for less money, there’s no reason why businesses wouldn’t eventually direct their advertising dollars there.

How many ads do you have on your site?
We have about 20 different advertisers on ARLnow.com right now.

You started ARLNow two years and nine months ago. Did you make any key changes in editorial, revenue or elsewhere that brought you to your tipping point?
You learn what works and what doesn’t over time. On the editorial side, I started with a much more informal, conversational writing style, and that’s evolved into a more “just the facts” style, while preserving just a touch of subtle humor at times to keep things interesting. On the business side, our ad units used to be smaller, but we found that larger ads were more effective for advertisers. And of course we’ve adjusted ad pricing with demand.

“As far as what makes a site replicable, I would hypothesize that it’s 10% platform and 90% execution,” says Brodbeck.

What or who prompted you to make those changes and in a timely way?
Closely monitoring user engagement, feedback and actions.  And, on occasion, asking people for advice, in person.

Editorial, especially at the local level, can be expensive. How have you made your content development an efficient operation?
I believe in hiring the right people and paying them pretty well.  Trying to minimize content costs a la Journatic isn’t going to get you anywhere in terms of building an audience or retaining quality talent. At the same time, we don’t kid ourselves into believing that we can afford to pay multiple full-time reporters for each individual community, at this point in time. The economic reality is that one full-time reporter with some freelance help is what we can afford at the moment. But I’d like to get to the point where we have two full-time reporters per site; that would allow us to spend a bit more time with some stories, improve our capabilities during breaking news situations, and provide some stability should one of the reporters move on to another gig.

In each of your new communities in suburban Maryland, you’re going up against not only AOL’s Patch, but also the Washington Post’s well-established, highly regarded Gazette network of community sites that spans all of suburban Maryland. What’s your  “secret sauce” to succeed against these big corporate competitors?
Well, our editor in Bethesda, Aaron Kraut, came from the Gazette. Before he worked there he freelanced for Patch. So we know what we’re up against.

We’ll win the day by being different than our competitors. We’ll break stories they haven’t reported, we’ll update articles frequently and respond to comments, and we’ll provide a better forum for readers to discuss local issues.  On the business side, we’ll be able to out-price any corporate competitor, since we don’t have a top-down management structure and commission-based sales staff to support.

Did you get any feedback from your new communities, including businesses, before you decided to expand?
I talked to residents and business owners before our launch and they convinced me that Bethesda could use our brand of up-to-the-minute, hyperlocal coverage.

If you succeed in suburban Maryland, would this mean you have a model that can be replicated throughout metro Washington, D.C., and perhaps beyond?
Nothing is automatic. We’re not a factory that can pump out hundreds of cookie cutter sites and expect them all to succeed. Hyperlocal cannot expand at hyperspeed. We’re taking this one at a time. If we succeed in Bethesda, we’ll likely launch a third site elsewhere. But we’re taking the time to get this right.

Any advice to other indies on how to beat the odds?
I think some indie publishers don’t run their sites like a business to the degree they should. Some don’t make the necessary investments in technology. Others treat ad sales as a necessary evil instead of a vital necessity. Some even try to publish as a part-time job instead of as a full-time job. All that is fine, as long as your commitment level matches your expectations of success. But truly succeeding in the business of local, independent online news publishing requires significant investments of time, effort and, yes, money. That really shouldn’t take anybody by surprise, since the same can be said for succeeding in pretty much any business.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.